The next morning, I strolled over to Walgreens in Chicago, where I bumped into Mike D’Antoni. We had a laugh about the face masks being sold at the counter, not something you see in LA. (Sidebar: Despite Mike D’Antoni being pinned as the antichrist of the Lakers organization, he’s not a bad guy. He’s quite likeable and personable when away from the spotlight, and he genuinely cares for his wounded and depleted group. Most would say D’Antoni’s not the right coach for the Lakers, but he’s not to blame for this years’ problems. As far as all the Lakers fans begging for Phil Jackson, even the Zen Master couldn’t save this team. If anything Phil Jackson should be covertly thanking the Jim Buss for accidentally saving his legacy).
Back to Chicago…I had heard that the hotel the Lakers stayed at in Chicago was the nicest of the trip, and possibly the nicest of all the hotels they stay in on the road. Apparently, Phil Jackson set a precedent to stay there, so the Lakers have stayed there ever since. Impeccable hotel with a gorgeous view of downtown Chicago and The Water Tower. I ran into Wes Johnson on my way out, who had just picked up a t-shirt and was strolling solo on the streets of Chicago.
I took a cab to the United Center in Chicago to get ready for the game. The locker room atmosphere mimicked that of Toronto. All the guys joking around with each other. First thing, I noticed was Nick Young’s locker. It was an absolute mess. Swaggy had been munching on green grapes pre-game and managed to drop a grape for every grape that made it’s way into his mouth. I got a good laugh out of that with Chris Kaman, who scolded Young for creating a mess and then threw grapes back at him. (Sidebar on Kaman: This is about as real of a guy as you can get. When you ask him a question, he doesn’t give you the media-appropriate answer. If you ask him to name a player he’d like to play with that he hasn’t gotten the chance to in his 10-year NBA career, he’ll tell you LeBron James without skipping a beat, because “he makes everyone around him better.” You’ll be hard pressed to find a guy in the Lakers locker room, who will answer that question honestly, simply because they don’t want their answer to make headlines, understandably. He’ll also tell you that he’s not happy he’s not playing and he doesn’t understand why. After another DNP-CD, he’ll tell Robert Sacre, that he needs to pick up more than one rebound out there).
Before the game, I happened to stop in the tunnel and chat with Kobe before the national anthem. He told me traveling on the road and not being able to play is “a pain in the ass.” He’s itching to get out there. Unfortunately for Kobe and the Lakers, it’s still going to be awhile before he sees the floor. Plenty of people walked over to say hi to Kobe while we were chatting, and he was cordial with all of them. Before he went out to the floor, he gave me one of those fist bump handshakes where you also bring it in for a shoulder bump. (White girl alert: It was one of those handshakes where I was supposed to act like I knew what I was doing, but I really had no idea. This was my second failed Kobe handshake of the trip. The first one happened when he came by to chat with our table at The Four Seasons in Boston. I’m curious if I play off these handshakes, or if inside Kobe’s just laughing at me).
At the half, some of the Chicago media members took me for a walk around the concourse, so I could see the “different walks of life” at the Bulls’ games. I ran into a flurry of dressed up Lakers Nation fans in Chicago, their fandom was pretty impressive. About two minutes after taking a picture of Scottie Pippen’s statue at the arena, I walked right by Pippen. I also had three different media members tell me that Pippen was an absolutely “miserable” player to cover.
Young sent the Chicago game into overtime after drawing a foul while shooting a three-pointer. Unfortunately, though the Lakers would put up a valiant effort, a game-winning, wide open Taj Gibson lay-up would leave the Lakers locker room defeated. Post-game, Nick Young’s Kobe-like antics were the center of attention. One reporter asked Nick if he’d like to be referred to as the Swag Mamba. Young was flattered by the Kobe comparisons, but wasn’t about to piggyback off a Kobe nickname.
“Swag Mamba? Nah. Nah. I’m Swaggy P, baby…Can’t be no Mamba. I don’t want to be a snake. I like the flash of the jewelry. I’m a flashy man. Look at my backpack, baby.”
Lakers rookie Ryan Kelly collected all the name tags from the lockers. The Lakers were on their way to Miami and I was on my way back to Los Angeles.
Traveling on the road with the Lakers is nothing like covering them at home, especially on a road trip that spanned almost two weeks time. The team is away from their element, their families, and the comfort of their own bed. As Nick Young says, all they’ve got “is each other,” and he seems like he does mean that. It’s also a time where you can see a teams’ true colors, and while this isn’t a very talented team, it’s a team that’s managed to sustain real camaraderie through the toughest of times, which is saying a lot about the character of this group. Let me tell you, I couldn’t say the same for the Lakers locker room last year.
I gained an even greater respect for the true beat writers, like Dave McMenamin (ESPN), Mark Medina (L.A. Daily News), Bill Oram (OC Register), Mike Bresnahan (L.A. Times) and all of the other writers and reporters who travel with their teams. It’s not an easy gig, and these guys work hard at what they do. Also, props to the Lakers traveling staff. Their hard work (without the glory) often flies under the radar, but it didn’t go unnoticed in my book. The Lakers equipment manager Carlos Maples is one of the hardest working men I know and the players really wouldn’t know what to do without Carlos around. The team also wouldn’t be able to travel without head trainer, Gary Vitti, literally, he’s in charge of all the passports. More than that, in good times and bad times, he’s been the stable backbone to each Lakers team. And, he’s sure earned well over his salary over the last couple years.
Lastly, thanks to the Lakers organization, specifically John Black, and all of the aforementioned writers who showed me the ropes and made me feel welcome. Maybe I’ll see you next year at Toscano with another story to tell.